WASHINGTON — A 21-day quarantine for all military personnel serving in Ebola stricken areas of West Africa was approved by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Wednesday.
The quarantine was pushed for by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Hagel said.
Initially the measure will apply to all personnel leaving the West Africa area. But Hagel said the policy will be reviewed within 45 days.
The policy creates a separate set of rules for military members than what the White House has pushed for civilian health care workers. President Obama has argued that civilian volunteer health workers returning from aid trips to Africa should not be quarantined and the White House has urged states not to impose their own quarantine policies. Science, Obama has said, does not support the need for a quarantine.
Asked to explain the discrepancy between civilians and the military, he said Tuesday service members have been sent to the Ebola region by him and health workers are going as volunteers.
“It’s part of their mission that’s been assigned to them by their commanders and ultimately by me, the commander-in-chief,” the president told reporters on the White House’s South Lawn on Tuesday.”So we don’t expect to have similar rules for our military as we do for civilians,” Obama said. “They are already, by definition, if they’re in the military under more circumscribed conditions.”
The chiefs did not have new scientific or medical data about Ebola when they pressed for Hagel to approve the quarantine the military official said. “This is simply about the chiefs looking at the best way to take care of the force, the families and the communities to which they are returning,” a military official said. This effort “is an admittedly conservative approach,” the official said.
In their discussions the chiefs—who each head one of the military services branches—noted that many of the US troops are young and inexperienced in any medical issues. There was concern they might not adhere to an informal protocol of taking their temperature twice a day on their own.
Hagel said Wednesday that the families and communities in the US and Europe where the troops are located had also expressed concern.
“They very much wanted a safety valve on this,” Hagel said at an event in Washington.
Rep. Mike Turner, a Republican from Ohio who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, said he was “encouraged” by the new policy.
“This act will ensure that our service men and women, their families, and our communities have the confidence that every necessary precaution is taken to ensure their health and safety.”
The US already has 1,000 troops on the ground, and that force could grow to a total of 4,000. “That’s the biggest group of Americans there,” the official said, noting that also was a factor in the chiefs thinking.
“The chiefs believe it is better to start more restrictive and then re-assess as we get further into the Ebola operation,” the official said. For now, troops will be held in quarantine at bases designated by each of the military services. There will be provisions for compassionate leave—allowing troops to leave quarantine if they have a family emergency such as an illness or death. The quarantine will also not apply to those just briefly travelling to Liberia, or aircrews flying in an out, although everyone is told to monitor their temperatures.
Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno ordered an Army wide quarantine for soldiers coming back from West Africa, beginning with Major General Darryl Williams and his team. Defense officials had said the quarantine for Williams was ordered because he and his group had traveled extensively around Liberia, although they had no direct contact with Ebola patients.